Eagles Defeat Grizzlies 69-65 in Big Sky Tourney Title Game

By DAVE GUFFEY

Tyler Harvey and Drew Brandon combined for 34 points to lead the visiting Eastern Washington Eagles to a 69-65 come-from-behind win over the University of Montana Grizzlies in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference’s postseason tournament Saturday night.

A season-high 7,026 Dahlberg Arena fans were on hand to watch the two teams that had tied for the league’s regular-season title with identical 14-4 Big Sky records. The win earns the Eagles (26-8) the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

Since the Grizzlies (20-12) won the league’s tie-breaker they were the No. 1-seed in the eight-team, three-day tournament hosted by UM in Missoula. And since the Griz were the top seed in the Big Sky and will now not advance to th NCAAs, they automatically earn a berth into next week’s N.I.T. Tournament. The 2015 N.I.T. tourney field will be announced at 6:30 p.m. (Mountain) on ESPNU on Sunday, March 15.

“I’m proud of this team, we’ve come a long way,” said first-year Griz head coach Travis DeCuire. “No one expected them to be in this moment. It’s hard to get all the way to the last game and not get the victory. All due respect to Eastern Washington, they seized the moment when the opportunity was there and we didn’t.

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Senior Jordan Gregory has now scored 1,214 career points, which moves him into a tie for 15th on UM’s all-time list. Photo by ©William Munoz

“Definitely,” was DeCuire’s answer when asked if he was glad his team will be playing in the NIT next week. “In November and December, we didn’t look like a postseason team, so for us to move on we just re-establish some goals tomorrow and try to lengthen this season and add some wins to our belt and make this a learning experience for everyone who has an opportunity to return next year. For the seniors we try to give them another experience with some postseason wins.

Despite 12 lead changes (six by each team) and five ties, it looked like Montana was on its way to its 11th NCAA berth, as UM took and 11-point lead at 59-48 with 6:15 left to play on a lay-up by junior forward Martin Breunig.

But the Eagles out-scored the Grizzlies 14-2 in the next four-plus minutes after they had taken that 11-point advantage, and when EWU sophomore forward Felix Van Hofe nailed a three-point shot the Eagles took a 62-61 lead with 2:10 remaining to play.

Montana had difficulty scoring after EWU had taken its double-digit lead, and missed three-of-four shots and also committed three turnovers, which led to a trio of three-pointers by the Eagles for nine points during that crucial stretch.

“A couple of stats that stand out: 61 percent for them in the second half, 13 turnovers for us,” DeCuire said. “Obviously when we got to about that 5 ½ minute mark was when we kind of came unraveled against the pressure a little bit and they took advantage of it. And once those guys got a little confidence their legs came back and shots that were hitting the front of the rim started going in. All due respect to that Eastern Washington team, they played well.

“As an assistant at Cal the championship we won … there’s some luck in that,” DeCuire said. “I kinda felt we were starting to get some luck because early in the year we were very unlucky and we had some games where we’d make shots with no time on the clock to extend games. Tonight, Eastern Washington had that turn for them – the five-second call, the turnovers gave them the opportunity to seize the moment.”

The Griz regained the lead for their sixth and final time on their next possession on a driving lay-up by senior guard Jordan Gregory, which gave them a 63-62 edge with 1:58 left in the game.

Brandon, 6-4 a senior guard, put the Eagles ahead for good on their next possession, hitting a jump shot in the lane with 1:33 to go, making the score 64-63, EWU. That play was followed by another UM turnover, which led to a conventional 3-point play by Harvey, a 6-4 junior guard.

Martin Breunig

Martin Breunig had a game-high 23 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. Photo by ©William Munoz

 

EWU pushed its lead to six points ( 69-63) and put the game out of reach on a pair of free throws by Brandon with six seconds remaining in the game.

The Eagles took an early lead in the contest and maintained their lead until Gregory scored on a lay-up with 5:41 to go until halftime, giving the Griz a 21-20 advantage. Later in the half EWU tied the game up at 26-26 on a tip-in by senior forward Garrett Moon with 2:22 to go until the break, and the teams then traded baskets, the Griz taking a slim, 30-29 lead at intermission.

Breunig had a game-high 23 points and pulled down a game and career-high 17 rebounds to register his sixth double-double of the season. Senior forward Mike Weisner made 5-of-shots and 4-of-4 free throws, and scored a career-high 18 points on the bench, while Gregory added 16 points.

Unfortunately, the Griz had just six total points from their three other starters – sophomore guards Brandon Gfeller (4 points) and Mario Dunn (2 points), and forward Fabijan Krslovic (did not score).

EWU dramatically improved its shooting in the second half, going 16-of-26 (61.5%) from the floor, compared to UM, which made 13-of-28 (46.4%) shots in the last 20 minutes.

For the game, the Eagles made 24-of-54 (44.4%) field goal attempts, while the Griz were 23-of-53 (43.4%). Both teams were below average from three-point range, as th Eagles made 4-of-18 (22.2%) and the Griz connected on 4-of-16 (25%). EWU had a 33-32 edge on the boards.

Gregory has now scored 1,214 career points, which moves him into a tie for 15th on UM’s all-time list with guard Charles Davis (1,214 points, 1947-53).

Harvey, the NCAAs’ scoring leader, led EWU with 18 points, while Brandon added 16, and Bogdan Bliznyuk, the league’s “Freshman of the Year,” had 13 points. Jois had 8 points and 5 rebounds, while and Brandon had a team-high 7 boards.

Montana’s Breunig and Gregory were both named to the Big Sky all-tournament team, as EWU junior forward Venky Jois and Harvey was tabbed the MVP. Also named to the six-play all-tourney team were Sacramento State senior guard Mikh McKinney and Northern Arizona sophomore guard Kris Yanku.

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